A commenter on Challies’ blog recently raised that question, and Tim gave me a shot at answering. You can read my thoughts on his blog.
Last fall, Collin Hansen of The Gospel Coalition interviewed me on the Christian doctrine of work. It’s now posted at their site. Here’s the video, with Collin’s intro:
What gets you out of bed on Monday morning to go to work? What motivates you to persevere in a job you don’t enjoy, that doesn’t reward you adequately?
I posed these questions to Matt Perman, blogger and author of the forthcoming What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Changes the Way You Get Things Done. We discussed how jobs afford us opportunities to love our neighbors, and how we each multitasked during repetitive work to learn about God and concentrate on his Word.
Especially if you’re struggling at work, you’ll want to hear Perman explain the doctrine of vocation, which invests everything we do with meaning, because we’re living out a God-giving calling. Whether a pastor or plumber, we work in faith as unto God himself (Colossians 3:23-24). Perman explains how even garbage collectors can apply this doctrine to make their work more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling.
Registration is open for Redeemer’s new faith and work conference, The Gospel & Culture. The conference will be November 4-5.
Here’s the gist:
The Gospel & Culture Conference represents the culmination of more than eight years of the Center for Faith & Work’s ministry targeted at equipping, connecting, and mobilizing Christians to engage the world from a gospel-centered foundation.
Drawing on the experiences of one another as well as more than 10 speakers representing various sectors, conference participants will gain:
- Sharpened discernment of God’s work in the world.
- Renewed understanding of the importance of community in cultural engagement.
- Heightened awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit in changing motivations of the heart.
- Excitement for our daily work as it contributes to building for the great City that is to come.
And here’s the agenda:
The Conference opens Friday evening, November 4th, with participants engaging the culture of NYC through “Glimpses,” events happening throughout the city which point toward evidence of God’s glory and His sovereignty over all things.
On Saturday, November 5th, all attendees convene at St. Bart’s for a full day of interacting with practitioners from across various sectors who will showcase their work in ways that highlight God’s work in the world.
Speakers include Tim Keller, Richard Mouw, and many others.
You’ll notice these articles are in agreement with the same basic three questions to consider, but they complement one another in a helpful way.
Here’s the summary from the end of Keller’s article:
Your vocation is a part of God’s work in the world, and God gives you resources for serving the human community. These factors can help you identify your calling.
Affinity is the normal, existential/priestly way to discern call. What people needs do I vibrate to?
Ability is the normal, rational/prophetic way to discern call. What am I good at doing?
Opportunity is the normal, organizational/kingly way to discern call. What do the leaders/my friends believe is the most strategic kingdom need?
Your life is not a series of random events. Your family background, education, and life experiences—even the most painful ones—all equip you to do some work that no one else can do. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do“ (Eph. 2:10).
A great article by Mike Horton on discovering your calling. Here’s a key point:
God does give us the desires of our hearts. He is not out to get us, or to make us wander the vocational wilderness forever. Sometimes we are “dumped” into short-term vocations which to us seem utterly meaningless and yet in some way providentially equip us with a skill which will be vital in our as yet unknown calling in life. We just cannot figure out God’s secret plan, but we can trust it and learn from natural as well as biblical sources how we might better discern our calling.
The questions, What are your skills?, What do you really enjoy?, What would get you up on Monday morning?, are in the realm of nature. Super-spirituality may look down on such mundane questions and try to steal into God’s secret chamber, but biblical piety is content to leaf through the book of nature. God has created us a certain way, given us certain habits, skills, longings, and drives.
Sometimes we over-spiritualize things and think God doesn’t care about whether we are in a role that is a good fit, or that considering our own desires and giftings in choosing what to do is somehow unspiritual.
Not true. Sometimes God will have us doing something that is not the best fit, but seeking the right fit is a good — and spiritual — thing to do. It is a matter of good stewardship to seek the best way to maximize the gifts, skills, and interests that he has given us.
Bill Hybels is talking now, and just said (slightly paraphrasing): “This conference is unapologetically Christian. Yet, when it comes to who we invite to teach, we seek to learn from everybody — people in the church, people in the business world, people leading in all walks of life.” (The first interesting paradox, by the way, is why Christians don’t just act and do, but also worship — see the previous post.)
I think he’s reflecting here something true and essential for Christian leadership. First, if we are Christians, we need to lead as Christians. We need to think about leadership from a Christian perspective and lead for the good of others and glory of God.
Second, we need to be willing to learn about leadership from all people, not just Christians. There is some really solid and helpful and true teaching on leadership outside the church. Christians should not neglect that. It is a matter of humility to say “I’m going to learn what I need to learn from any source that is speaking truth and making helpful, winsome, solid observations.” And the speakers that are invited to the Summit reflect some of the best of this thinking, both inside and outside the church.
Some might be skeptical about the value of Christians learning about leadership from non-Christians. But let me just list three theological reasons that it is right and necessary and helpful to learn about leadership from non-Christians as well as Christians:
- The doctrine of vocation affirms the validity and helpfulness of the insight and work of people in all areas of life, both Christian and non-Christian. The issue is whether something is true.
- The doctrine of common grace affirms that there is truth in creation that is accessible and discernable to believers as well as unbelievers. To deny that Christians can learn about leadership from non-Christians is to unwittingly deny the doctrine of common grace.
- The Summit isn’t inviting non-Christians to teach theology. I’m not saying we should look to non-Christians to teach the Bible. But, in accord with the doctrines of vocation and common grace, there is value in learning from non-Christians about life and the world, and this includes leadership. We need to think through everything from a biblical point of view, but we shouldn’t commit the genetic fallacy by rejecting something just because the person who came up with the idea or made the observation is not a Christian.
Sometimes it is suggested that attention to our gifts and unique interests is just “American individualism,” rather than a feature of biblical Christianity.
This is wrong-headed. There is a wrong kind of individualism, to be sure. But there is also a right, biblical kind of individualism that, while affirming the uniqueness and importance of each individual, also affirms this in relation to the value of community.
In fact, I would argue that “American individualism” actually arises from biblical values. Sometimes these values are perverted into a narcissistic, wrong kind of individualism. But they don’t have to be.
The biblical notion of individualism is best captured in the doctrine of vocation, which was a major emphasis of the Reformation. Here’s how Gene Veith summarizes it in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life:
The doctrine of vocation looms behind many of the Protestant influences on culture, though these are often misunderstood. If Protestantism resulted in an increase in individualism, this was not because the theology turned the individual into the supreme authority.
Rather, the doctrine of vocation encourages attention to each individual’s uniqueness, talents, and personality. These are valued as gifts of God, who creates and equips each person in a different way for the calling He has in mind for that person’s life.
The doctrine of vocation undermines conformity, recognizes the unique value of each person, and celebrates human differences; but it sets these individuals into a community with other individuals, avoiding the privatizing, self-centered narcissism of secular individualism.
The other day I came across an excerpt from the new book by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. I don’t know if he’s a believer or not, but right at the start he does a fantastic job of articulating, in shadow form, a core concept of the biblical doctrine of vocation. Here’s what he says:
Only weeks earlier, I’d sat in my Seattle office holding back-to-back meetings about how to quickly fix myriad problems that were beginning to surface inside the company. One team had to figure out how we could, in short order, retrain 135,000 baristas to pour the perfect shot of espresso.
Pouring espresso is an art, one that requires the barista to care about the quality of the beverage. If the barista only goes through the motions, if he or she does not care and produces an inferior espresso that is too weak or too bitter, then Starbucks has lost the essence of what we set out to do 40 years ago: inspire the human spirit.
I realize this is a lofty mission for a cup of coffee, but this is what merchants do. We take the ordinary—a shoe, a knife—and give it new life, believing that what we create has the potential to touch others’ lives because it touched ours.
Here’s the point: the ordinary is not ordinary. Rather, it is in the ordinary that we are able to build people up and, yes, inspire the human spirit.
When you clean house for your family, or pour a cup of coffee, or take your car to the wash, you aren’t just doing small, mundane things. You are building building people up. You are making things better, and making a statement that people matter. Or, that’s how you ought to see it.
And the doctrine of vocation takes us further than this. For it means that, when we serve others in the everyday, it is actually God himself who is serving people through us. God is hidden in the everyday. This is true if we are believers; and God is also working through unbelievers, even if they don’t know it (Gene Veith makes this point very well in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life
when he discusses why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” when we actually get it from the grocery store, who got it from the bread company, who got the ingredients from various other spots, and so forth).
In fact, the doctrine of vocation even takes us one more step. When we, as followers of Christ, serve others for his sake, we aren’t just serving them. We are actually serving the Lord himself. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24; see also Ephesians 6:7-8).
Last February I broke my nose in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s a funny story that maybe I will tell sometime. Tomorrow I have to go in for surgery to get it fixed. (Complicated insurance reasons are driving me to get it done before the end of the year!)
They knock you out entirely for this surgery, which in one sense I am glad about. (But, in another sense, I’m not looking forward to it because it means you are having things done to you over which you will be entirely helpless about yourself!).
The surgery is not a huge deal (and all the damage is on the inside — you can’t tell by looking at it that it was broke), and I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had this done. But in light of being knocked out entirely, there are two doctrines, or truths about God, that particularly come to mind and which I will be relying on as I go under.
1. The Doctrine of Vocation
I don’t know if the doctor who will be performing the surgery is a believer or not, and he doesn’t have to be in order to be a good and effective doctor. And that’s because of the doctrine of vocation.
The doctrine of vocation teaches us that when each of us are operating in our vocations, it is ultimately God who is at work. God is “hidden” in vocation — including those of non-Christians.
Gene Veith does the best so far of articulating this doctrine for us today (see his excellent book God at Work). Veith points out that the doctrine of vocation is why, in the Lord’s Prayer for example, we can pray “give us this day our daily bread” even though the bread comes to us through the work of a thousand different people (the farmer who planted the seeds and harvested the wheat, the people that used the wheat to make the bread, the people that designed the company’s process for making the bread, the people that built the machines used in making the bread, the marketing department that enables people to know about the bread, the truck drivers that delivered the bread to the grocery store, the stock people who stock the shelves with the bread, and so forth).
The reason we pray to God to give us our daily bread, even though it comes through the actions of humans, is because God is at work through each person’s vocation to serve us and his creation.
As Veith puts it:
Though he could give it to us directly, by a miraculous provision, as He once did for the children of Israel when He fed them daily with manna, God has chosen to work through human beings, who, in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve one another. This is the doctrine of vocation.
Luther goes so far as to say that vocation is a mask of God. That is, God hides Himself in the workplace, the family, the Church, and the seemingly secular society. To speak of God being hidden is a way of describing His presence, as when a child hiding in the room is there, just not seen. To realize that the mundane activities that take up most of our lives. . . are hiding-places for God can be a revelation in itself.
As it is with our daily bread, so also it is with this surgery: ultimately it is not the doctor at work to produce this outcome of a repaired nose, but God. The doctrine of vocation enables me to acknowledge and even admire what the doctor is able to do, while ultimately looking up to God as the one who is himself bringing this about and fixing my nose. (I only wish he wanted to do this one through a miracle!)
We might normally think, “If God is going to fix my nose, then a fixed nose will miraculously appear.” But no. The doctrine of vocation teaches us that tomorrow, when the surgeon repairs my nose, that itself is God giving me the gift of a fixed nose. God is fixing my nose tomorrow — not through a miracle or instant fix, but through the work of the surgeon. And the outcome will be just as much from God as if He had done it directly.
This gives both comfort and significance to the experience of something like surgery, let alone all the other things that we do and experience in our daily lives. As Veith goes on to say:
Most people seek God in mystical experiences, spectacular miracles, and extraordinary acts they have to do. [But] to find Him in vocation brings Him, literally, down to earth, makes us see how close He really is to us, and transfigures everyday life.
2. God’s Providence for Believers
The doctrine of vocation is obviously very related to the doctrine of providence. When it comes to providence, there are two main types that theologians distinguish: God’s general providence, which is his governance and care over all creation, and God’s special providence in redemptive history, such as his special work to preserve the Scriptures and lead the church to recognize the correct books of the canon.
There’s also a third category worth thinking of, which is simply God’s providence over his church and the lives of believers. I think it is warranted to think of this distinct from God’s general providence over creation because of all the promises that he makes to his people. Things such as:
God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6:31-32)
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church. (Ephesians 1:22 — in other words, Jesus rules all things for the sake of the church)
Now here’s what I find very remarkable in this experience. In many ways, we are able to attend to our more immediate needs. Or, more accurately, God meets these needs through our actions. When we are hungry, we can go get some food. If a driver seems to be coming into our lane, we slow down or move over. If a baseball is flying right at our head, we can knock it down or move. We are able, to a certain degree, to work and do stuff to provide for our needs and safety.
But tomorrow when I go under the anesthesia for the nose surgery, apparently I won’t even be able to breathe for myself unaided (they have to put a tube in). I will go from having some role and involvement in the meeting of my needs to none.
That feels strange. As I look ahead to this, because of his providence and care, what stands out to me is that God will be watching over me in this time. It’s not that he isn’t just as much watching over us when we are awake and have all of our abilities. But there is something unique about the fact that my involvement in the process will be gone. I will be trusting him to keep watch over me and do so entirely independent of me. I will have to stop taking care of myself for a time, and trust that God will do so now not just partly through my actions, but now entirely apart from them.
I know the surgeon will do a great job. But, because of the doctrine of vocation and doctrine of providence, my ultimate trust is not in the surgeon or medical knowledge, but in God working in and through and, in some sense, above those things.
I know this is just nose surgery, they do this all the time, and it’s really simple to think of going under, and then waking up on the other side in the recovery room. But we shouldn’t take God’s provision in these things for granted, any more than we should take his more everyday provisions for granted. We should be thinking about and consciously grateful for God’s provision in all areas of our lives at all times; and having to go through the unpleasant experience of something like nose surgery is, to me at least, a good reminder of this.
Stephen Nichols booklet What Is Vocation? (Basics of the Faith) is a helpful and quick read on the subject. It helps to remind us that, whatever our work is (ministry work, marketplace work, or working in the home), it is a calling from God and therefore is immensely meaningful when done for the glory of God.
Another helpful read on the doctrine of vocation is Gene Veith’s excellent book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.
And, if you haven’t made the connection already, it’s worth noting: everything that I write on productivity is really a fleshing out of the doctrine of vocation on the practical side.